Exhibition reveals the vast and diverse world of bacteria

Bacterial World is a fascinating and enlightening new exhibition at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History curated by Merton's Professor Judith Armitage that seeks to rehabilitate the reputation of bacteria and counter the popular misconception that they are all bad, or to be feared.

Incorporating more than 55 exhibits—spanning monumental art, geological and deep-sea specimens, film, and digital interactives—Bacterial World will demonstrate how these tiny organisms wield huge influence over us, shaping the past, present and future of life on our planet.

The exhibition—which features items on loan from institutions including the Wellcome Collection, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, the Pitt Rivers Museum, and the Natural History Museum, London—demonstrates how science is lifting the lid on the secret lives and hidden stories of the smallest of organisms and their influence on us and our planet.

Making visible the microscopic world around us, one of the most striking elements of the exhibition—and at 28 metres long, by far the largest—is a giant inflatable E coli sculpture created by renowned artist Luke Jerram. Suspended from the roof, in itself a dramatic feat of engineering, Jerram’s E coli is five million times bigger than the real thing.

Visitors to the exhibition can also enjoy the chance to play Gut Wars, a specially developed game in which they set bacteria armed with different weapons and abilities up against one another in a simulated gut environment. Another interactive, Bacteria Explorer, will allow users to descend into the microscopic world of bacteria and learn more about their shapes and abilities by exploring virtual 3D models.

Professor Armitage, who is the exhibition's lead scientist and President-elect of the UK Microbiology Society, said:

“I hope this exhibition goes some way to revealing the generally unknown and unseen vast, diverse world of bacteria. Bacteria have been evolving since the beginning of life on Earth and helped form the planet on which we live, providing the oxygen and much of the nitrogen needed for current life. Their complex communities, where they live and die, compete, communicate, cooperate, fight and have sex have evolved for specific environments and, we are coming to realise, are essential for healthy soils, oceans and even ourselves. While some, in the wrong place, can cause diseases, we need to understand microbial communities to be able to continue to control those diseases and to maintain both a healthy body and a healthy planet.”

Professor Paul Smith, the director of the Museum of Natural History added:

"Bacteria are essential for almost every aspect of life on Earth, from the very origins of life itself to the deeply intricate relationships that underpin all ecosystems. Drawing on research from across the University of Oxford, the Bacterial World exhibition explores our very intimate relationships with bacteria and reveals the vital roles they play in enabling our planet's huge variety of life."

Bacterial World is at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History until 28 May 2019.